The Best Is Yet to Come (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

I was still under 40 when, after months of saying no, I agreed to move back to Little Rock to become editor of Arkansas Business. I was scared that I might fail spectacularly in my hometown, but the more I thought about the offer, the more the fear of regret overcame the fear of failure.

That was the summer of 1999, and some weeks I still feel like a rookie trying to get another issue to press. But I know a lot of time has passed because the boy who started third grade that August is now a college graduate and the one who was starting kindergarten has finished his first year of college.

One of the touchstones of each of those years has been the 40 Under 40 feature, which I have overseen since 2000. It’s not unique to Arkansas Business; many other business journals and trade journals around the country have similar features. (Notable: The National Law Journal included former Little Rock attorney Gene Cauley in its 40 Under 40 feature before he admitted stealing $9 million from clients, but Arkansas Business never did.) Even after 20 consecutive classes — even after personally participating in 14 of those — I still believe this is a valuable exercise for the Arkansas Business staff and for our readers.

There’s no doubt we’ve been overly enthusiastic about some young business executives who flamed out quickly — three have gone to prison, and one is there now — and I feel certain that we’ve passed over some nominees who were far more impressive than the honorees we did choose. But when I look at the 803 names in the 20 annual lists, I feel pretty good about our collective ability to spot up-and-comers. I only regret that some of that talent has subsequently left Arkansas. (Why 803? Because in the first year, 1994, there were actually 42 honorees, including two married couples, and last year we jointly honored twin brothers.)

I especially enjoyed reading the features that Todd Traub, our managing editor for special business publications, wrote about one member of each past class. We asked Del Boyette, a member of that first class, to submit to questions for the Executive Q&A feature, and a member of the Class of 2002, our regular marketing columnist Jim Karrh, weighs in with his commentary.

After the first couple of years that I participated in the 40 Under 40 project, all of the honorees have been younger than I by definition. Now even those who are barely squeaking in at age 39 seem like whippersnappers. But a great thing about what I do for a living is that I can continue getting better at it. Professional athletes are generally past their prime by 30. It’s a rare phenomenon when one is still playing at 40 (although my high school classmate Trey Junkin was). But in journalism, and in business, those years of experience — of having seen similar situations and having figured out, sometimes the hard way, what works and what does not — can make a practitioner ever more valuable.

Back in 2000, when bank earnings were starting to slide after years of white-hot profitability and foreclosure action was starting to heat up, I called some bankers to ask what was going on. One of them said, “There’s a whole generation of lenders who have never lent in anything but a world-record economy.” Another said something I’ve never forgotten: “The first thing I look for in a lending department is gray hair.”

I don’t think I had any gray hair in 2000, and now I’m so gray that people think I’m making some kind of fashion statement. (I am; it’s called laziness.) But I appreciate more and more what he was saying.

There are now bankers with a decade of experience who have never seen anything close to historic norms when it comes to interest spreads. While some credit standards are loosening up, I suspect it will be a generation before lenders forget that real estate values don’t always go up. Even if some of the newbies become cavalier, there’s going to be someone with gray hair (possibly under the hair color) who has been through the worst of times and keeps a steady hand on the throttle.

I’m really glad I didn’t pass up the opportunity to be editor of Arkansas Business. I highly recommend taking a professional risk every now and then. Here’s to those of us who aren’t under 40 anymore. If we keep working at it, the best really can be yet to come.

Email Gwen Moritz at GMoritz@ABPG.com.